Duke's band of brothers shares load, thrills of accomplishment

Nov. 19, 2013 @ 07:34 PM

They play positions where football heroes reside.

Thousands of kids take to sandlots and backyards every fall pretending to be a quarterback or running back, making the perfect pass or scintillating run that leads their team to victory.

At Duke, a half dozen players man those positions in a time share, something that certainly isn’t part of anyone’s childhood dreams.

Yet, for the surging Blue Devils (8-2, 4-2 in ACC), things are working out just fine.

“Everybody wants to be the guy,” Duke sophomore running back Shaquille Powell said. “At times, people get frustrated because we are competitors. But as a corps we care about each other and love each other. We all want to see other guys do good things.”

There is plenty of that at Duke this season. If the Blue Devils win at Wake Forest on Saturday (noon, ESPN2), they will have the program’s first nine-win season since 1941.

The Blue Devils are rushing for 185.1 yards per game, good for No. 51 out of 123 Division I Football Bowl Subdivision teams nationwide, and fifth in the ACC.

Running backs Jela Duncan, Josh Snead, Juwan Thompson and Powell have combined to average a healthy 5.84 yards per carry this season.

Duncan (485 yards) and Snead (480 yards) lead the team in yardage. But it was Powell, who has 215 yards this season, who sealed the 48-30 win over Miami last Saturday with a 33-yard touchdown run on a fourth-down play.

At quarterback, the situation is the same.

Anthony Boone entered the season as the starter but Brandon Connette took over midway through a week 2 game at Memphis when Boone broke his collarbone. Connette started three games before Boone returned for an Oct. 12 game with Navy.

Since then, he and Connette have shared the snaps and Duke will carry a six-game winning streak into Saturday’s game at Wake Forest.

“I think we’ve got the right mindset,” Connette said. “At different schools, it can be difficult. People are worried about getting theirs. Anthony and I really only care about what’s best for the team. It’s a lot of fun playing with Anthony and seeing him being successful on the field. It’s enjoyable coming off and seeing him be happy for me even though he wasn’t on the field for it.”

Last Saturday’s Miami win exemplified how the system works.

Boone completed 11 of 15 passes for 104 yards. Connette threw nine passes, completing five, for 81 yards, But Connette accounted for five touchdowns, throwing for one and running for four. Boone has started seven games and Duke has won them all. Connette leads the team with 12 rushing touchdowns and 13 passing touchdowns.

“A lot of people say if you have two quarterbacks you have none,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “People who say that have never met Anthony and Brandon.”

Boone and Connette together have completed 63 percent of their passes for 2,376 yards. Those are numbers Cutcliffe is more than happy with. Connette has 1,209 passing yards, Boone 1,165.

That’s nearly an even split and it’s just fine with both.

“That’s just how our team is as a whole,” Boone said. “There is no one individual with us. We are not about ourselves. We think about Duke football.”

While the quarterbacks have never had an issue, Cutcliffe admitted he had to have a discussion with his running backs earlier this season about sharing the load. Egos aren’t always so easily kept in check.

The process of smoothing things out didn’t take long. And the Blue Devils are roaring through their best season in 70 years because of it.

“We’re brothers,” Powell said. “We love each other but we are all competing with one another. We all want to get touches and want to get touchdowns. But it’s a rare combination because we are selfless and hope the other guys do well. That’s what makes us different.”